No film about a tech high school is going to get a nine-figure budget, and while the school is continuously delightful, the film also has to compete with the Wonder Women of the world. While most teens are focused on their college applications, Peter is burnishing his Avengers resume, desperate to join the group after his debut in the last Captain America film. As his contact/advisor, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) keeps Peter at arm’s length, telling him to stay focused on school and his local neighborhood before going pro. No amount of pickpocket-thwarting is going to let Peter stand side by side with Thor, and he chafes under the limits Stark puts on him. After he stops an ATM theft by robbers using suspiciously advanced weaponry, Peter senses an opportunity to catch a big fish and earn his promotion.
That opportunity represents perhaps the best villain the MCU has served up after many films. Michael Keaton plays Adrian Toomes, the owner of a salvage company introduced in the opening scene. All set to clean up the destruction from the aftermath of the first Avengers film, he’s thwarted by government intervention and the regulators that come with them. While this level of precaution seems obviously necessary to quarantine alien technology, Toomes is furious at this potentially-bankrupting development and he has his team steal what they can before it’s too late. Years later, he’s a profitable arms dealer, complete with his own flying suit in the form of a mechanical vulture.
Toomes is as small-scale as the film he appears in, wanting nothing more than to provide for his family, but his rationalizations make him relevantly believable. He’s the mine owner thwarted by mercury regulations, the dry cleaner burdened by EPA guidelines. There is a greater good at stake in keeping reservoirs free of hazardous waste, but what use is the greater good to the individual who needs to put food on the table? Watts pokes at Toomes’ hypocrisy by eventually showing that food on that table, as he’s since become a rich man well past the point of providing and deep into conspicuous consumption. He’s demarcated his every action as being for his family and therefore, this winged Walter White has no compunctions about disposing of anyone that would put themselves between that goal. Meanwhile, the fruits of his labor are represented by ever more dangerous criminals becoming ever more powerful. Keaton plays him as a man that is holding several codependent personas in his head at the same time; the loving family man, the boss who gets stuff done, and the ruthless cutthroat with a striking amount of gravelly bass in his voice. As effective a villain as Toomes is, Watts also takes care to remind the viewer that there are worse people in this small corner of the world, a stroke that doesn’t diminish Toomes’ misdeeds but does hearken to a day when Spider-Man might wish for nemeses like Toomes.
In the lead role, Holland marks himself as a star with a bright future. Already possessed of an impressive filmography with his work in The Impossible, Edge of Winter, and Lost City of Z, Holland fully inhabits the role that will make him famous. He brings a level of enthusiasm to the role not seen amongst other MCU stars, so eager to change into his Spider-Man suit that he’s tripping over his clothes. He plays Peter as a teenager through and through, never more apparent than when he unlocks the female-voiced AI assistant in his suit and he earnestly asks her questions about both the suit’s capabilities and how he should approach a crush at school. When he’s not cracking wise with the decathlon team, Watts gives Holland the opportunity to stretch himself in scenes of real exertion and stress, scenes in which the stakes are dramatically raised by the circumstances and by the desperation that Holland brings to them.
Rest assured that any seriousness that breaks into the film is vastly outweighed by the very funny cast. Comedy staples like Hannibal Burress, Donald Glover, and Martin Starr have small roles with a high joke density, particularly a fantastic joke by Starr’s teacher character that implies a dark history of field trips gone awry. Batalon steals his share of scenes in his hefty chunk of screentime. He’s brought in to Peter’s secret identity early on, avoiding a tiresome dynamic and birthing a better one where Ned gets to be Peter’s tech guy and hype man, jobs that Batalon is well-suited to. Of the six writers, including Watts, the one that most jumps out is Chris McKenna, from some of the best episodes of shows like Community and American Dad. Comedy backgrounds in the writing and directing departments continue to pay dividends for Marvel, especially in relief to the dour DC universe films.
Though Spider-Man: Homecoming is another strong entry in a year where Marvel has gone three for three, there is room for improvement. Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May isn’t a memorable character, barring one post-credits scene, and as expected from third-time director Watts, the action is choppy and occasionally incoherent. Marvel’s plots have also not gotten more complicated. If anything, they’ve stuck closer to formula while most significantly altering the tone of their last several films. Spider-Man might not feel like Doctor Strange or Ant Man, but the underlying structure is identical. Eventually, that formula is going to result in a mess, but as of now, Watts won’t be the one responsible. B